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Report: N. Korea leader's health delays meeting

North Korea's ruling party has delayed the start of its biggest meeting in 30 years because of Kim Jong Il's health, South Korea's YTN television reports.
A poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, painted by a defector, is seen at a museum in Seoul, South Korea.
A poster of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, painted by a defector, is seen at a museum in Seoul, South Korea. Lee Jin-man / AP
/ Source: Reuters

North Korea's ruling party has delayed the start of a rare conference due to leader Kim Jong-il's health, but his condition is not serious enough to cancel the meeting, South Korean television reported on Monday.

The Workers' Party conference, bringing together the secretive state's ruling elite for the first time in 30 years, was called to pick a new leadership and likely anoint an heir — his youngest son — to the dynasty as Kim's health deteriorates.

With North and South Korea still technically at war, having only signed an armistice in 1953, regional powers are anxious to know what changes are afoot and who will command the nearly 1.2 million troops and another 7.7 million in the reserves.

Kim, 68, is suspected of suffering a stroke in 2008, and didn't appear in public for months until 2009. He also looked frail during trips to China, the isolated North's only major supporter, over the past few months.

South Korea's YTN television cited an intelligence official in Seoul as saying he was aware that Kim's health had worsened after a whirlwind five-day trip to China last month.

The source said Kim's health concerns were not serious enough to warrant cancelling the meeting, which would open soon. The meeting had been scheduled to start before September 15.

Experts say the best case and most market-friendly outcome for succession is an approximate continuation of the current system, which would mostly satisfy regional powers who seek a stable and incremental evolution over a sudden regime collapse.

South Korea's unification ministry, which deals with North Korean affairs, declined comment on the YTN report, as did the foreign ministry.

The scheduling of the conference coincides with a flurry of diplomatic activity in the region, home to the world's second- and third-largest economies and a massive arms build-up straddling the Korean peninsula military border.

Tensions rose to their highest level in years in March with the sinking of a South Korean warship in March, which Seoul and Washington blame on the North. Pyongyang denies any role.

But in recent weeks there have been signs of a thaw in ties, with South Korean offers of rice aid to the North, talk of restarting inter-Korean family reunions, the release of foreigners held in the North and speculation of renewed dialogue.

Pyongyang has expressed a willingness to return to nuclear disarmament talks, which have been in limbo since 2008 when the mercurial North walked out and said discussions were finished.

Washington's pointman on North Korean affairs Stephen Bosworth met South Korean officials on Monday on the first leg of a regional trip. Six-party talks host China is pressing for a resumption of the aid-for-disarmament talks.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg said on Saturday Washington would be ready to resume six-party talks if Pyongyang showed "concrete indications" it would try to implement a 2005 nuclear disarmament deal.

Workers' Party delegates have been summoned to Pyongyang for the biggest political meeting since 1980, when Kim himself began his official role to succeed his father and state founder by taking on a Workers' Party title at the age of 38.

Experts have said Kim's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is likely being lined for an official title at the conference.

By signaling Kim Jong-un's rise, experts say North Korea is readying for a collective father-and-son leadership in years to come, which will cement the family's grip on power.

In the event Kim Jong-il dies suddenly, his son, by then identified as figurehead leader, would be surrounded by close family confidantes who have been appointed to senior positions in the Workers' Party and military in recent months.

South Korea, China, the United States and Japan will all be watching for clues as to how any transfer of power proceeds in the country with a military-first policy and enough fissile material for at least six to eight nuclear weapons.

The only really worry is if there are signs of regime collapse which could result in internal unrest, massive refugee flows and military exchanges. The main concern in that case would surround the North's nuclear materials.

The meeting takes place at a time of great hardship for the impoverished North as it tries to work around toughened U.S. and South Korean sanctions and accomplish something to show for its pledge to become a "powerful and prosperous" nation by 2012.

North Korea is hopelessly low in cash, and Kim Jong-il's two visits to China this year were in part seen to win economic support.